Restored to greater glory
The Pierre New York, a Taj hotel, reopened in June 2009 following a $100-million refurbishment that has made it classier and more hospitable than ever before. In this interview, general manager Heiko Kuenstle speaks about the makeover of the iconic property and the way forward.
The hotel’s décor still maintains its classic ambience, with traditional interiors that have a refined, modern sensibility. Subtle Indian touches can now be seen throughout the hotel, such as the silk comforters and artwork in the guestrooms and public spaces. The guest bathrooms have been enlarged to feature glass-walled showers, steam-free mirrors and soaking tubs with flat-panel televisions.
Updating of the technology we used was an integral part of the renovation. All bedrooms feature a 40-inch flat-screen television, a Bose Wave Studio with iPod docking station, WiFi, a working desk with built-in data and power outlets, and sound-insulated, energy-efficient windows.
The Two E bar and lounge is a welcoming place for timeless cocktails, coffee, tea or small plates. Designed by Alexandra Champalimaud, Two E is a neoclassical, residential-style lobby lounge by day; at night it transforms into a stylish bar with a relaxed, intimate atmosphere and memorable dance parties.
How has the renovated Pierre been received by your guests?
Our guests are appreciative of Taj Hotels’ meticulous restoration of The Pierre. Regulars love that the Taj has managed to preserve the heart and soul of the hotel, and they are delighted with all the new amenities.
The Pierre is also seeing a wave of new guests who come to experience the new and updated offerings of the property. Many of these guests are coming because they are familiar with the Taj brand and want to enjoy a Taj experience in New York City. The renovation is not only attracting new guests to the hotel but also a whole new contingent of New Yorkers to our new restaurant and bar.
The Pierre has built its reputation on legendary service and unparalleled facilities. Our expectations for this year are to reinforce The Pierre’s restoration and its position as the top luxury hotel in New York City. We received our AAA Five Diamond status for the second year in succession and expect to receive the Forbes Five Star status as well.
How is the Taj brand being promoted in the United States?
For over 100 years, Taj has been creating, enhancing and caring for landmark properties around the world. It continues this tradition in the United States with three landmark hotels: The Pierre New York, the Taj Boston and the Taj Campton Place in San Francisco. Taj is renowned in India for its standards of excellence in the art of hospitality, unwavering attention to detail and for maintaining each property’s unique history and beauty. We are doing the same in the United States and, consequently, we have a rapidly growing and loyal customer base in the North American market.
The Taj group places a high value on corporate sustainability activities and linkages with the community. Could you tell us a bit about such projects at The Pierre?
The movement towards ecologically sound tourism has gained urgency and importance across the globe over the last decade. The Taj has responded to this shift with its EARTH (Environment Awareness and Renewal at Taj Hotels) programme.
As part of this initiative, The Pierre is committed to the cause of sustainability by reducing the impact of our daily operations on the environment and improving operational efficiencies, resource conservation, reuse and recycling of key resources, and social responsibility within the community. By doing this, The Pierre has achieved its first sustainability certification level from the prestigious Green Globe programme, a worldwide benchmarking, certification and performance-improvement initiative.
We are building a power plant fuelled by renewable natural gas that will reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. We have a 100-per cent recycling policy for paper, plastic, glass and cardboard; eco-friendly products in our bathrooms; and organic mattresses in the guestrooms. Going forward we are planning on mulching wet garbage, using biodegradable chemicals and sourcing local raw materials wherever possible.
The Pierre is a strong advocate of community service and donates to many charities including City Harvest, an organisation that collects food to distribute to homeless shelters across New York City, and Toys for Tots which distributes toys to children.
We also participate in a programme called Grand Central Neighborhood, where Pierre employees volunteer their time at a soup kitchen to feed the homeless in Grand Central Station.
A history of hospitality
What does being a part of the Tata family feel like?
To be welcomed into the Tata family the way I was has been exciting and enlightening. Joining the Taj was a personal and professional decision for me.
At the Taj Boston, I have tried to get my people to understand what Tata represents, the group’s heritage and its philanthropic outlook as well as its global presence, not just employees at this hotel but Bostonians and New Englanders too. It’s invigorating to be part of a process that bridges the gap in understanding.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Taj Boston, its history and its heritage?
This hotel really is not just significant because of its history within Boston, but also because of its history of hospitality. It was, it is said, the first hotel in the Americas where you had your own bathroom, the first to have fresh-cut flowers in its open spaces and so on.
We get a good blend of customers. We have corporate guests through the week. The weekend visitors are mostly people who come to see Boston, to enjoy sporting events or those who have business with the many universities and educational institutions in the city, but business travellers constitute the majority of our business.
The Ritz-Carlton is what this hotel was since the 1920s, so there is plenty of emotion attached to the name. Our employees here continue to be very proud of the hotel. There were some instances of emotion when the change from the Carlton to the Taj happened, but our people have come to understand what the Taj stands for and how much it cares for its employees.
How is this property being marketed? What are the challenges you face on that front?
We market our property as one of the leading luxury hotels of Boston. That aside, we market the hotel through different periodicals, through our newspapers, through multimedia, and through the bouquet of Taj luxury properties globally.
How do room rates compare with that of the competition?
Our room rates vary from $275 to $425 for a night and that isn’t as high as that of some of our competitive set. We continue to work on our average rate, we continue to try to offer more to our guest as far as amenities go, and we continue to drive service as much as we can. Our occupancy rate for the year is about 75 per cent.
Tell us about your restaurants.
We have all-day dining and our restaurants are very popular with Bostonians. A good story here is about what happened when we tried to change one of our menus a few months ago. We decided to do away with chicken pie and chicken biryani — but our guests would have none of it; they wanted it back on the menu.
Could you tell us about your long-term vision for the Taj Boston?
As a property The Taj Boston is financially fit and has been able to deliver revenues and profits. We have been able to do that only because we have ensured that we are a significant part of the wider community and of Boston.
I see the hotel remaining a social address for Boston. I see the Taj Boston being increasingly known for the work it does in community relations and community welfare. For instance, we have been working for years with the Women’s Lunch Place, an initiative that takes care of homeless women.
I see the hotel continuing to garner significant revenues and profits.
Serving up luxury, Taj-style
Tell us about the hotel and its rich history. Taj Campton Place opened its doors in 1909 as the Drake-Wiltshire. Campton Place Associates acquired the property in 1981. Plans were then developed for an extensive renovation which would turn the old Drake-Wiltshire into the luxurious Campton Place Hotel. The hotel was completely rebuilt to accommodate 126 rooms and suites where there were once 220, and reopened in October 1983.
In June 1992, some guestrooms were turned into a luxurious meeting and banquet facility leaving 110 guestrooms, nine of which are suites. The restaurant, bar, lobby and public areas were also renovated in 1994 and 1995 and further upgraded in 2001. These enhancements included an indoor-outdoor health facility to ensure that Campton Place was well suited to face the new century as one of San Francisco’s finest hotels.
Has the hotel undergone any renovation after the transition to the Taj group?
In order to maintain the property as “the place to stay in the Bay Area”, an ambitious programme of upgrades has been undertaken in all areas.
Wireless internet and a new electronic door lock system have been installed throughout the hotel. New HDTVs, minibars and automatic espresso machines are available in each guestroom, and the linens and amenities have been upgraded to match the quality used in fine homes around the world.
The executive boardroom was renovated in November 2007, adding new features such as a 63-inch plasma HDTV with IT-based video-conferencing capabilities and broadband wireless internet service. Also, on the lobby level, we have added a new business centre offering complimentary internet access along with copying, faxing and printing services.
How have regulars and new visitors taken to the hotel’s new avatar as part of the Taj chain?
The hotel is an iconic hospitality landmark in San Francisco and Taj’s reputation of preserving historic Indian palaces and landmark hotels (like The Pierre New York) has made local patrons and return guests very supportive of the transition. New visitors find Taj Campton Place a quiet refuge in a busy city, in an environment that feels like a refined home.
What is the guest profile? Is the hotel seen as a luxury social destination or a premier business setting?
Taj Campton Place is the perfect place for a leisure or business traveller. It is a world-renowned luxury boutique hotel whose comfortable elegance and intelligent, personalised service will make any stay in San Francisco warm, carefree and memorable. Campton Place Restaurant, a one Michelin Star eatery, is one of San Francisco’s premiere dining spots. The hotel is centrally located near the city’s best shopping and dining, lush parks and famous museums. It is also strategically located on Union Square, close to many corporate and business headquarters, and is the top choice in San Francisco for the discerning business traveller.
What are your business expectations for the coming season?
According to the NBTA Foundation, corporate travel budgets will grow 4.45 per cent in 2011 on a national travel level. Although corporations are increasing their budgets, this does not mean actual travel will grow. For San Francisco, we are expecting transient room demand to grow in 2011 for both business and leisure.
What are the brand values that Taj Hotels wishes to communicate in the US market?
The Taj brand in the US is built on the quintessential luxury qualities of heritage, authenticity and welcoming hospitality. All our hotels boast a rich heritage and culture; guest experiences, which we enhance by continuously redefining authentic luxury; and customer engagement through a number of campaigns and localised activities. The presence of three landmark hotels allows us to communicate what the brand stands for in a more visible and emphatic manner.
Taj Campton Place works with a number of charitable organisations. The Walden House, a local shelter whose mission is to give hope and change lives for people affected by substance abuse and mental health conditions, is supported with in-kind donations as well as by extending professional support which will help inmates in securing jobs. We are also in the process of finalising teams who will cook for them and read to the children.
During the holiday season we hold an annual food drive where all associates participate by donating non-perishable food items. All proceeds from the food drive are donated to The Salvation Army, which works in the San Francisco area. We are also proud to be part of the fight against breast cancer with the American Cancer Society. We recently held a Tata-First Book event, which was a tieup with Tata Sons to provide new books to children.